June 30, 2022

The news media has been lax in denoting the derogatory acronym RINO, typically stating that it means “Republican in Name Only.” Although the term and its variations have been used for decades — most notably by the late veteran reporter John DiStaso in 1992 — former President Donald Trump and his followers have usurped it.

One of the most egregious uses appeared in a recent political ad by former Missouri Governor and Senate candidate Eric Greitens. Playing off his military credentials, Greitens leads an armed tactical team that breaks down a door and hurls flash grenades, as if to kill any RINOs in an empty home.

Here’s the transcript:

I’m Eric Greitens, Navy Seal. And today we’re going RINO hunting. The RINO feeds on corruption. He is marked by the stripes of cowardice. Join the MAGA crew, get a RINO hunting permit. There’s no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn’t expire … until we save our country.

A searing condemnation of the advertisement came from Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for George W. Bush and, presumably, a RINO. Disputing Greitens’ claim that the ad is metaphoric, Gerson writes:

Calling upon a MAGA mob soaked in furious resentment and bristling with heavy weaponry to kill insufficiently radical Republicans is not the equivalent of ‘all the world’s a stage.’ It is the incitement to violence of a rather literal-minded group. The movement that has no moral bottom is finally within sight of one. What is the next step beyond urging your followers to murder your political opponents? It is murdering your political opponents.

In Gerson’s plea for voters to defeat Greitens, he uses the term “RINO” six times (including in the headline). But even Gerson does not further clarify the term, allowing it to stand as a MAGA-vexed vilification.

It is time to add a descriptor whenever writers use the slur.

I left the Republican Party in 2017 after Trump first called journalists “enemies of the people” in this Feb. 17 tweet: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the people. SICK!”

A Vietnam-era reporter, I no longer in good conscience could remain in the GOP. Six of my UPI colleagues died covering that conflict, along with 57 others in this partial list.

I never covered that war, but my journalism psyche was shaped by UPI combat reporters Kate Webb, Leon Daniel and Joseph Galloway. (You can read about their example and courage in “Memorial Day memories: Courage of war correspondents.”)

On Feb. 24, the day Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, I told my media ethics students at Iowa State University to keep count of the media workers about to be killed in the Russo-Ukrainian war. That number is 15 and counting.

As an ethicist, I am reminding journalists to go beyond simply defining the term “RINO,” adding a sentence or two of background about the insult so that it cannot be so easily leveled at Republicans like Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, who testified at the fourth Jan. 6 committee hearing.

For instance, in reporting this exchange, reporters might write that “RINO” here not only means “Republican in Name Only” but apparent disloyalty to Trump as GOP kingmaker.

Shortly before his moving testimony, Bowers was targeted by Trump in a statement. Congressman Adam Shiff summarized it before beginning questioning, noting that “former President Trump begins by calling you a RINO, Republican in name only.”

Bowers had been asked to affirm allegations of voter fraud by assembling an official committee to hear evidence and take action. He refused to be “used as a pawn.”

Asked to replace electors with fake Trump ones, Bowers stressed that this would be “counter to my oath when I swore to the Constitution to uphold it, and I also swore to the Constitution and the laws of the state of Arizona.”

The right to vote, he said, was a fundamental one of the people and any attempt to overrule it must be conducted through the courts with factual evidence. “There was no – no evidence being presented of any strength.” Bowers summarily dismissed hearsay theories that would disenfranchise voters. “And it is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired, of my most basic foundational beliefs. And so, for me to do that because somebody just asked me to is foreign to my very being. I — I will not do it.”

Bowers expressed his pride in being a conscientious Republican who admires former President Ronald Reagan (another RINO by today’s standards). As such, Bowers said, like Reagan, we must respect the rule of law and the legacy of American democracy. “The fact that we allow an election, support an election, and stand behind the election, even in the past when there have been serious questions about the election and then move on without disturbance and with acceptance that we choose — we choose to follow the outcome of the will of the people.”

Weigh those comments against Trump’s use of RINO in reference to Bowers and other Republicans. True RINOs:

  • Demand fact-based evidence in legislative proceedings.
  • Respect the rule of law.
  • Heed the will of the people.
  • Keep their oaths as public servants.
  • Believe the Constitution is divinely inspired.

When using the word “RINO,” journalists and editors should add an apt descriptor associated with the report in question. That can vary, and we must also guard against political editorializing. For the purists reading this, whenever sources use the term, ask them for a definition — and then report it.

In any case, RINO decidedly is not a liberal wing of the Republican Party or a faction that insufficiently embraces the party line.

In 2021, The Hill appealed for a new meaning in “Can we please have an authoritative definition of RINO?” The author — former Republican Jim Jones, Vietnam combat veteran and past chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court — believes RINOS support civil rights and strongly oppose insurrection.

Jones, Rusty Bowers and millions of other RINOs swear oaths to the Constitution rather than to a person — the primary distinction between a democracy and autocracy.

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Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living…
Michael Bugeja

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